x0
Author: Sherrie Cronin

Chapter 9
JULY 2009

72

Part II.  x0 equals one

 

The Yoruba man Olumiji (oh lou MEE gee) arrived in the village at the beginning of July, seeking the local woman who was performing magic. The villagers were defensive, for they basically liked their new fortune-teller who gave generally sunny, if somewhat vague, predictions that so far had a pleasant way of working out to be true more often than not. They were concerned that Somadina had violated some unknown law or perhaps offended some religious person and now would be asked to cease her soothsaying on their behalf. But the stranger assured everyone that Somadina was in no trouble.

Somadina, of course, had an entirely different worry when Olumiji came to her house. She was afraid that word of her talents might be spreading and that she would be required to predict the future for a less gullible and more serious audience, which she absolutely did not wish to have to do.

"I am not much of a fortune-teller," she greeted the man at her door. Azuka was still at the shop, and Kwemto was playing in the yard.

"I know you are not," he smiled. "But what you are doing is harmless. I have no quarrel with it."

"You have a quarrel with something else?" she asked.

"In fact, yes. May I come in please?"

Somadina nodded and hastened to make some tea for the stranger. He sat at the small kitchen table as she motioned to it.

"I am here in the rather awkward capacity of the neighbor who has been selected to ask you on behalf of all the other neighbors to please make less noise."

"I don't understand. You are not my neighbor, and I do not make noise."

Olumiji smiled. And then he softly touched her mind with a gentle hello.

Oh.

"Oh indeed." He spoke aloud. "Somadina, you know you have a gift. It should not surprise you that while it is rare, you are not completely unique. Many people have this gift to some minor extent, but like our relatively bad human sense of smell, they just ignore it in day-to-day life because it does not do them very much good."

Then, in response to a feeling he got from her. "Yes, it turns out that you are particularly talented, in fact you are probably at least as capable as anyone I have met. And I have met quite a few folks who can do this well. You might like to know that I am extremely gifted in this area also. And yet, you and I would find it quite difficult to hold this complicated conversation effectively between us, even here at close distance with eye contact and facial clues to help us. So … I personally choose not to call this ability telepathy, although that is how some of my colleagues do refer to it. Extreme empathy? Maybe, although it seems to go beyond that. And while it has its uses, sort of like smell, it can be a nuisance at least as often as it can be helpful. Don't you agree?"

Somadina had to nod.

"But you are particularly troubled about something lately, and you have recently become exceptionally adept at giving off distress signals. Almost continuous distress signals. The rest of your village is largely deaf to the noise you are making, but those of us within mental earshot, if you will, can hear the racket and are starting to get both concerned and, to be honest, tired of the noise."

He felt Somadina's panic that she was going to be told to stop seeking help. "No. Hold on. No one wants you to walk away from someone in real distress if that is the case. We believe this is about your sister, but it has been hard to tell just what is going on. So, why don't you start at the beginning and tell me in words the actual situation. That way, perhaps, we can give you both a hand and a reason to calm down."

Somadina trusted the man. She already could tell on a very deep level that she could. But she would likely have told him the whole story anyway because there was little to lose. Ikenna had priced a private detective in Lagos a few weeks ago. It would be weeks more before they could afford even the most basic of searches. So any help that came more quickly would be welcome. And any reasonable chance to get such help was a chance to be taken.

Somadina's story started at the beginning with Nwanyi's birth and went on for quite a long time. While she talked, Azuka came home, met Olumiji, and gathered up their son and tactfully took him to visit his grandparents well before the story was half-finished. It was clearly more involved, and more serious, than Olumiji had expected, and it clearly was doing this young woman a world of good to talk through the events.

Olumiji listened patiently until he had to finally, reluctantly, explain that it was getting late and he had to go. He was so glad he had gotten the information. So glad that he understood now what was going on. Of course he would try to help, and others he knew, they would try as well. This awful man and Somadina's sister must be found. Her distress was understandable.

When Olumiji left, he gave her an email address and cell phone number on a dark red business card. "Tell your father about me," he instructed. "Explain to him that I will send text messages to his phone if I learn anything important. His son Udo can read them to him and should pass the information on to you. And I will also email you about any progress, so try to check your email. I promise that you have been heard and you are not alone."

He smiled, catching Somadina's amused notice of the reference to the meaning of her name. "Yes," he agreed. "Most telepaths are loners who need time by themselves to recharge. The choice of your name is indeed ironic. But it is a beautiful name. Meanwhile, please understand that you have been heard."

"I will try to ease up on broadcasting my worry," Somadina promised. "I can be quieter, so to speak. I just had no idea that there were people like me who heard me. I am sorry." And Somadina clearly felt Olumiji's assurances that no apologies were necessary.

"What is this odd thing on your business card?"

It was the letter "x" with a little circle by the upper right corner of the "x", sort of like the way Somadina had sometimes seen people write the temperature. "x degrees?" she tried.

"No, it is a mathematical term. It would take some explaining, but what matters is just that it is the name of a group of us who all have this talent like yours, and we get together and try to understand it and to help each other work with it and occasionally even just help people in general by using it."

"Like a club?" Somadina asked.

"Yes. Just like a club."

"Then how do you pronounce the name of the club?"

"Oh. We just call it One. Like the number."

"Well, that is easy enough to remember," Somadina laughed. Just knowing that One existed, she felt slightly better than she had in months.

 

And so the first week of July Lola found herself on the west side of Houston at a small Mexican restaurant, approaching an elderly fair-skinned man with faded freckles, a shock of white hair, and a huge friendly grin. "Thanks for coming young lady. A pleasure to see you." Maurice was as healthy an eighty-four-year-old as Lola had ever seen, and he rose surprisingly quickly to pull her chair out for her.

Oh good grief, Lola thought, but she said nothing.

Maurice beamed, "You have grown into quite an attractive young woman."

"You knew my dad?"

"I knew you. The little girl that rode around west Texas with her dad while he fixed two-way radios. Trucking companies, oil companies, every county sheriff's department, we all depended back then on two-way radio communication for all the places a phone line didn't reach. Which was most of the places. So practically every little hill in West Texas had some sort of base station or relay station on it back then."

"Yes, and a third of them went out every time we had a thunderstorm," she laughed as memories she had not recalled for decades began to resurface. And she started to warm a little. "My mom used to send me along with dad to keep him company on the road, especially if he had been out the night before trying to get some sheriff’s department back on the air. She was always afraid he might fall asleep at the wheel. I missed a fair amount of school in those days, but I got a heck of an education."

"I bet you did," Maurice laughed as well. Lola was starting to have the odd sensation that she and Maurice had been friends for years.

"You, know, everybody I met always treated me very well. Those oilfield guys were incredibly sweet. Mudloggers would give me soda pop, the company man always had some kind of candy or cookie stash he was willing to share, and my dad was too busy to enforce rules about eating sweets. Sometimes they'd forget to take down their calendars. If I got left in the office by myself, I'd play with the ones with the transparent page on top that covered the girl with a little nightie, and I would lift up the page and she'd be naked.

"You played with those calendars?" Maurice seemed awkwardly amused and Lola thought to herself, what in the world am I doing telling him this? She realized that she had felt so instantly comfortable with the man that her normal filters for what made for appropriate or inappropriate conversation seemed to have disappeared.

"It's okay," he assured her, as if he somehow understood the dynamics.

"I mean, it was like dressing and undressing my dolls. I thought they were fun." She tried to turn the conversation onto a more normal track. "But luckily I never came across a single creep. Which is why I suppose to this day I have a greater comfort level in places that would make most women uneasy. It's served me pretty well in my profession."

"I bet so," Maurice said. "I heard you were a doodlebugger."

Lola had to smile at the outdated term for a geophysicist. "Mostly on a computer these days. But yes, I've spent my time in the field."

"Well we have a mutual friend in the oil business. Sort of. You work with a Nigerian company now. I understand that one of your engineers in Lagos showed you around a bit during a visit in March."

"That's right." Lola was all ears.

"This may seem odd for an old guy from West Texas, but I have a good friend in Nigeria myself who is your friend's brother."

"Well that is what I heard. You guys worked together in the past?"

"Actually no. Our relationship has absolutely nothing to do with our profession."

Lola waited.

"We both belong to an organization. Kind of a loose worldwide group. Jumoke has been invited to join too, but he rather vehemently declines. His brother, on the other hand, is one of the leaders, so I think there is a little friction there."

"Jumoke mentioned that he and his brother had some sort of issues. He was pretty vague about it." Lola said.

Maurice smiled but said nothing.

"What is this about?" For reasons she could not quite pinpoint, this whole meeting was starting to make Lola nervous.

"Raise your left hand," Maurice said. "Just an inch or two. Please."

Lola rolled her eyes but she complied.

"Very nice. Now please but it back down." Maurice paused.

"Do you have any idea whatsoever of what a miracle you just performed?"

"What are you talking about? I lifted my hand."

"And could you please tell me just how you managed to do that? How you succeeded in wishing your hand to go up and it actually did it, in just the way and the amount you wanted?"

"I …" Lola was going to start in on muscles and neurotransmitters and realized that her ability to explain exactly how she raised her hand upon demand was outside of her ability to explain. "A neuroscientist could explain it," she said lamely.

Maurice laughed. "I've got six trees outside this window who would consider it magic, if they could consider. And a baby four tables down who is in the process this very moment of desperately trying to teach himself to do that very thing, and he is finding it incredibly difficult. But even though you, a trained scientist and logical woman, cannot explain to me how you do it, you most certainly do not consider your ability to raise your hand to involve any kind of sorcery?"

"I do not."

"That's good. And I suspect you do not consider the cell phone in your purse magic either?"

"Of course not."

"And yet in both cases you largely have taken the word of experts that the powers involved obey the natural laws of this universe, because you believe in those natural laws, not because you can convincingly explain these natural laws yourself?"

"Well yes."

"Then would you be willing to consider that your abilities to connect mentally with others might also involve perfectly reasonable, albeit less understood, laws?"

So. That was what this was about.

"I don't know. I have been doing a little research of my own on the subject. I never used to give it much thought to be honest, but recently I've become, well, more curious about it. I'm not sure what I think right now."

"And that's a good start," Maurice said. "I know that you understand electromagnetic radiation. Tell me about the visible spectrum?"

"Okay. Sure. This stuff I do know. Our eyes see electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength as short as about four thousand angstroms—that's purple—to as long as about seven thousand angstroms—that’s red. Even longer wavelengths are called infrared. They look black to us, but they exist and transmit heat. Wavelengths longer than that are microwaves, and really, really long wavelengths are radio waves. Like what you still receive with your car radio. We do radio stations in cycles per second, hertz, but given that the speed of all electromagnetic radiation is constant—thank you Albert Einstein—that’s really just another way of expressing wavelength. Oh, and shorter wavelengths are called ultraviolet—they look black to us also but cause sunburn, among other things, and even shorter ones are x-rays. Then radiation gets really dangerous beyond that."

"Excellent. You passed your physics test," Maurice chuckled. "And, scientist that you are, I suspect it would not surprise you in the least to learn that while most people do not see electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength longer than seven thousand angstroms, you do find people who can actually see a very deep shade of red at wavelengths past ten thousand angstroms. They can see it. You can't. Are they performing magic?"

"Of course not," Lola said. "Everything works on a bell curve. There are always outliers."

"Exactly. My dear, it seems that the human brain has a very mild and not particularly well-developed ability to send and receive emotional information by means that are at best poorly understood at this point but which we have no reason at all to suspect in any way defy the laws of physics. It has nothing to do with electromagnetic radiation by the way. As far as we know. All we do know for sure is that we just don't happen to fully understand all the laws of physics and particularly the ones that govern this phenomenon.

"And of course, just as with eyesight and the visible spectrum, there are outliers at both ends. Some folks are particularly inept at this process. Others are the equivalent of those who can see a deep and beautiful shade of red at eight thousand angstroms. And you are one of them."

"I see deep red? Metaphorically?"

"You see deep red at eight thousand angstroms rather well. Metaphorically. This makes you unusual. But you already know that you are."

And Lola acknowledged to herself that that was true, and Maurice seemed to understand her agreement as well. He went on.

"There is a sort of threshold, let's say the equivalent of seeing deep red at wavelengths greater than ten thousand angstroms, at which a human starts to possess some rather significant and impressive skills. It's a gradational situation, but unlike with the ability to see light, which we've been using as an analogy, this isn't a completely fixed genetic trait. He leaned forward like it was very important to him to communicate this idea.

"To use our analogy, folks who just see in the normal spectrum tend to keep on just seeing in the normal spectrum. But folks who see deep red at eight thousand angstroms have this tendency, when stressed or otherwise somehow pushed or encouraged, to grow that ability into being able to see all the way to ten thousand angstroms. Jumoke, who usually stays out of our affairs, gave his brother the very strong impression that he believed that you were in the process of doing just that. Which is why I was asked to drive over here, make contact with you, and ask you to consider becoming at least loosely involved with our group."

Lola was a little overwhelmed. Yes, things were changing, but she thought of this as a rather private problem. "You want me to join something? Are we talking monthly meetings? Initiation rites? Membership dues?"

"None of that really. We'd just like to be in contact with you."

"Like you want me to open my mind to you?"

Now Maurice rolled his eyes. "Like we'd like your email address. Maybe your cell phone number. We share ideas and information, through normal channels. You may have noticed that this gift you have is not particularly great for passing along facts like the exact amount of our membership dues."

"So you do have membership dues!" Lola joked.

He went on. "We are just a group of folks trying to understand what exactly it is that we are good at. We try to help each other when the rare need arises. We occasionally try to quietly debunk fears and myths about telepathy if and when they get going. We do have a password-protected website that we would very much like for you to visit so you can learn more about us and we more about you. We keep it to members only, not so much because we're trying to be a secret society as much as—

"Never mind explaining that," Lola laughed. "I do get it. It would hardly help my credibility at work or at my daughter's school for someone to find me listed on any kind of ESP website."

"Exactly. We're secretive only because none of us can care to be categorized as kooks. We're normal, sensible people trying to figure out why we seem to be able to do unusual things."

"You know," Lola offered, "while I was looking around on the internet I couldn't help but notice that a lot of the research has been about transmitting an image like a blue circle. And yet what I have seems to be a lot more about transmitting feelings. Less like eyesight, which is definitive and precise, and much more like, I don't know, fear being sent as a pheromone."

"Very good," Maurice said. "The human sense of smell, while basically understood, is really one of the closest analogs we have for this ability. Like smell, it is largely ignored on a day-to-day to basis. It can provide extremely useful information to a human—yikes, why does my apartment reek?—but even at best it usually requires additional information. Oh, yes, I see a dead mouse on the floor. Or, it looks like the dog pooped in the hallway. I mean one can smell the difference between dead something and dog poop, but you are going to want to look with your eyes and see what the problem is. Your nose has only told you for sure that there is a problem."

"So true," Lola agreed. "Or for that matter the things I sense seem to be a lot more like seismic signals. They are possibly caused by any number of things because they are big, diffuse pieces of information from which I am trying to get a precise interpretation."

"That's it exactly," Maurice laughed in agreement. "And here you've got a drilling engineer who needs to know when you are going to hit that pressure transition to the nearest foot, and an operations geologist who wants the tops of rock formations that accurately also. And your information is coming in a big one hundred foot high waveform, and you’re not even sure if what you are seeing is the top of a rock formation or an echo bouncing off of another interface. Yes indeed. Telepathy is very much like that. If I'd ever met a telepathic doodlebugger before I might have recognized the similarity."

“So how long has this organization been around?"

"It has a complicated history. In its current form, since the late eighteen hundreds," Maurice said. "There was a surge of interest in psychic powers around then and several different organizations originated."

"I read about a few of them on the internet."

"Yes, well, the others all seem to have centered around proving telepathy exists, and they either approached the problem by trying to substantiate claims—which means they spent a lot of time investigating frauds and cheats, or they focused on things like card reading which seems a little bit to me like asking folks to emit an odor on demand to represent a three of clubs and then asking someone else to interpret that odor. Not the right tool for the job."

"So how did your organization approach this?"

"Well for starters we just accepted our own empirical evidence that telepathy did exist, so we never bothered with public claims made by those wanting to gain fame or to entertain. Instead we focused on figuring out how, why, and when it really does work, and spent our energy looking for people like you, and like me for that matter."

"I see. And what have you found out?"

"We have a huge anecdotal database, but I think the most interesting thing is the extent to which the phenomenon seems to be increasing."

"Increasing? In an age in which we seem to be finding more ways every day to send information to each other already? Why?"

"Well we have a lot of heated discussions going on about that. In fact, as you'll find out, we're a group of people who likes to have heated discussions about a lot of things," Maurice chuckled.

"On this particular issue, one group holds firmly to the idea that all of this electromagnetic information we are sending around the planet is starting to hit unhealthy proportions. Or it will in the long run. Throwing off the birds and the bees, literally, so that eventually flowers don't get pollinated and the whole ecosystem breaks down. They see humans as part of some larger organism that includes the earth and every living thing on it, and they believe that this organism is trying to grow its own organic ability to transmit information in a way that is safer for all life on the planet."

"Wow. Now that's a wild theory I would not have thought of. Do you believe that?"

Maurice laughed. "I try to keep an open mind, but frankly it's a little too New Age for me. I'm an old Texas geologist from the oil patch. But I will admit that it is an interesting idea."

"So what do you think is causing it?"

"Well, it could just be natural evolution. I'm proud to be a born-again Christian, but I am a man who spent my career working as a paleontologist. You know, the guy who dates the scraps of rocks that come up in the drilling cuttings by looking at the fossils of the little dead bugs found in them."

"I know what paleontology is," Lola reminded him.

"Of course you do dear. It's just that being a fundamentalist Christian paleontologist is kind of an oxymoron—only it is one most people wouldn't get. The point is that over the years my education and profession have left me to conclude that I have no reason to quarrel with evolution or with the idea of God creating the earth in four billion years. So along with that, I have to figure that we're still probably evolving because why would God be done with us now? So I personally figure this whole telepathy thing is just part of God's plan. Making us better, you know. Maybe even more like him."

"Okay." Lola wasn't going to debate religion with this man. She liked him and he was as entitled to his view of the universe as she was.

"But I can tell that's not your cup of tea. There is another theory I do like," he went on. "It has to do with the fact that as we have more telepaths in society we get better at transmitting the one thing we cannot communicate well electronically. How we feel. Maybe with email and chat and text messages and all the social networking tools out there, we actually have a much greater need now to be able to send a sense of our feelings than we ever had before. We already know that evolution is a little clumsy and goes in fits and starts at best. Maybe we are trying as a species to grow, as quickly as we can, a tool to complement the quick growth of our own communication technology."

"You know," Lola said. "I do like that theory. And, in fact, I like your organization. Question, think, debate. Good approach. Go ahead and count me in, or whatever you are supposed to say when you join a secret club. By the way, what is the name of this secret club I am joining?" she smiled.

He handed her a card. It was deep red. It simply said “x0.”

"Deep red for metaphorically seeing ten thousand angstroms of light?" she asked.

"Very good."

"But why x to the zero power?"

"That's another whole long story. Another time, okay?"

"But isn't it kind of a mouthful to say?"

"Oh no," Maurice laughed. We just pronounce it "One."

"Well, that is easy enough to remember," Lola said, smiling at the math. And just knowing that One existed, she felt slightly better than she had in months.

 

It was a Saturday night, and the household was still empty. Djimon had Nwanyi strip and kneel in front of him, her face awkwardly close to his covered crotch. He briefly considered letting her ease his growing arousal by demanding oral sex, but reason and good judgment told him he was far better off waiting and handling that matter himself later. Instead he stepped back, pulled off his belt and smiled. He bound her hands behind her back, knowing that otherwise she would not be able to keep herself from trying to protect her exposed face and breasts. He stepped back to give the belt room to swing, but had swung the belt only twice before she spoke up herself.

"I am a worthless. I do not deserve to exist."

Well now, that was easy. Too easy, actually. He felt oddly disappointed. No, these sessions needed to be intense. Memorable for her. To be effective. Now what? Improvising, he untied her wrists.

"Don't move your hands," he ordered. "Don't even start to move them to protect yourself while I am doing what needs to be done to you. You do not deserve protection. Not even from your own pathetic hands. Do you understand me?”

She nodded.

“If you even start to move them while I am being forced to discipline you, you will get two more strikes for every time you move. Tell me you understand."

"Do not move my hands." She said it simply without emotion.

"Why not?" he asked.

She froze in confusion. He struck with the belt hard across her face, coming closer to her eye than he had intended. Damn. She needed her vision. He had to aim more carefully.

As the blow grazed her eye, her hands flew to her face in horror. "That will be two more," he said coldly.

Djimon stepped back a bit more and carefully administered one to each breast, taking artistic pains to carefully center each hit on her nipple, both for his own amusement and to assure himself that he could indeed aim a belt. She did not move, either time, but tears were pouring from her eyes, whether in frustration or pain or both he could not tell.

"Do you deserve the protection of your hands?" he prompted.

"No."

He could have sworn she was relieved at figuring out what she was supposed to say.

"I do not deserve protection, even from my own hands. I am worthless. I do not deserve to be alive."

"Very, very good," he smiled. And so it went. That night, the next weekend, and the weekend after. The process was going every bit as well as Djimon could have hoped.

 

Azuka knew that he should head over to the clinic and get his results, but he felt reluctant to do so. What if? He wasn't sure that he was prepared for the consequences of knowing. He also knew that he had perhaps been more dramatic than necessary with Somadina regarding the possibility. … She was right that his odds were good. He knew many men who had done much worse far more often and did not have the disease. … Well did not have it as far as they knew. …

Absentmindedly, he watched Kwemto play. He enjoyed living in a house with only own his wife and child, the way modern couples did. He liked being a father and hoped for more children, but his favorite part of the arrangement was living with his wife. Of course he would remarry if this all went poorly, but Azuka could not imagine doing that right now. Women were not interchangeable parts to him. If one does not work out, he could not simply substitute another. He rather envied men who felt that way—it must have made their lives simpler. He looked up as Somadina came in the door with a determined look in her eye about something. Hmm … If he had wanted simple he should have chosen a different woman.

 

As the Houston summer went from a slow simmer to a full boil, the Zeitmans survived the July heat together, had some laughs, had some nice moments. Lola continued to think that her medication was not doing anything one way or another, but Dr. Walker cancelled her third two-week appointment due to a family emergency of his own, and Dr. Hayes renewed the two-week prescription with a month's dosage of 50 mg tablets based on her over-the-phone assurances to the nurse that she was experiencing no side effects.

 So Lola tackled her problems pragmatically, avoiding bathing more than absolutely necessary and staying out of middle seats altogether. It reminded her of the old joke where someone says, "Doctor it hurts when I hold my arm this way," and the doctor answers, "So, don't hold your arm that way." Simple enough.

 She also noticed that the pleas for help from her imaginary friend, as she came to think of the young woman, seemed to be softer and less persistent. Maybe the woman had given up on her sister? That was kind of a sad thought.

But maybe not. For in place of the general pleas for help Lola now felt a new urge, if she could call it that. A strong urge to learn more about Nigeria. She found herself increasingly curious about the country and found it increasingly satisfying to research anything about its history and geography on the internet. Not as odd as it sounded. She was enjoying her job and had always liked knowing more about the places she was working. She had always liked travel and learning more about foreign locales. At least that is what she told herself, but at some level she knew that she was being gently tugged by someone else, by someone who had decided to stop begging for help and to start doing something more constructive.

So, just as the cat would try to herd her toward the cat food when his bowl was empty or herd her towards the front door if he wanted out, Lola let her curiosity be herded by her imaginary friend. She knew it was voluntary on her part. She did not feel possessed or driven. But she deeply wanted to know more about the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. She was also very curious about Lagos. So she downloaded maps of the country and studied them. Studied the roads. Studied the rivers. Studied the Igbo culture and beliefs and felt some nights like she was an Igbo woman herself. Which of course she was not. But her friend was. Lola was now sure of it.

She told herself that it was completely harmless and even kind of fascinating. Like being one of the folks in the telepathy experiments that had been conducted at places like at Duke and SMU. Why not? These were prestigious, sensible places. She was just looking at packets, picking the one that most matched what she was sensing. Igboland. They actually called it that. And it was home. A match. She had a "hit." And it made her curious. What more could she learn?

Lola turned to the major news outlets and found that British news, particularly the BBC, did a far better job of covering news from Africa that any U.S. source that she could find. Reading through BBC articles on the internet, Lola learned that less than a month ago, on June 30, Amnesty International had released a report calling the years of pollution and environmental damage in the Niger Delta a "human rights tragedy." The report claimed that the oil industry had caused impoverishment, conflict, and human rights abuses in the region, that the majority of cases reported to Amnesty International related to Shell, and that Shell must come to grips with its legacy in the Niger Delta. The report noted that Shell Petroleum Development Company is and has been the main operator in the Niger Delta for over fifty years and is also facing legal action in the Hague concerning repeated oil spills that have damaged the livelihoods of Nigerian fisherfolk and farmers.

Lola found Buffalo Springfield's 1967 hit "For What It's Worth" (BUY) starting in her head while she read the news article on the internet on her lunch break. Was it because the song's haunting tune and warnings fit the troubled tone of the story?  Or maybe she had just heard Bob whistling the refrain in the break room…. 

In the article, the BBC went on to report that Shell had defended itself in a written statement provided to the BBC arguing that "about eighty-five percent of the pollution from our operation comes from attacks and sabotage that also puts our staff's lives and human rights at risk. In the past ten days we have had five attacks." The Shell response added that "in the last three years, gangs have kidnapped one hundred and thirty-three Shell Petroleum Development Company employees and contractors while five people working for our joint venture have been killed in assaults and kidnappings in the same period."

The general insecurity in the area, according to Shell, is what prevents it from running maintenance programs that might otherwise be run.  Meanwhile,  militants in the Niger Delta say they stage attacks on oil installations as part of their fight for the rights of local people to benefit more from the region's oil wealth.  Others argue that the attacks are staged mostly for the attackers' financial gain.

Lola read the article with sadness, feeling for so many individuals now trapped on multiple sides of a bad situation. She had no trouble believing that Shell had behaved poorly, maybe even abysmally, decades ago, destroying the livelihoods of Nigerians they probably had barely noticed. But today, she needed an armed guard in Lagos to go from the hotel to the office. Who was in the right? How did one solve this sort of mess?

 

Djimon instructed Nwanyi to begin to mutter herself to sleep each night saying, "I am worthless," over and over, telling her he would have Mairo verify each evening that Nwanyi was doing as told and that Nwanyi would indeed be punished more if she did not comply. Of course he did not actually ask Mairo to check, as he believed that the less he involved Mairo in this particular part of the process, the better. It seemed to him that while women could be plenty cruel mentally and emotionally, to both men and each other, they all seemed to be unnecessarily squeamish about physical violence and had what he supposed was an understandable tendency to band together, in spite of their differences, against brutality from men. So it was best to keep Mairo, who was normally no angel of mercy, at arm’s length from all of this. No unnecessary risks were warranted.

He found it interesting several days later when he heard from Ibrahim the gardener that the second wife muttered in her sleep. "Can anyone hear what she says?" he asked nonchalantly.

"No one could understand her for a long while. It sounded just like an animal whimpering. But now the cook is certain that in the morning she has heard her saying, "I have no right to be alive."

At first this annoyed Djimon, because it was not the phrase he had instructed Nwanyi to repeat. She was supposed to be saying, "I am worthless." He considered beating her extra hard for this minor act of defiance. Then he remembered what he had heard of her story, back when he was seeking a suitable woman for this role. Her mother had died in childbirth. He had forgotten that. So the girl had possibly grown up believing that she had no right to be alive. Might have cried herself to sleep with just that phrase as a child. Perhaps the muttering was completely unconscious, in which case it should be encouraged. Worthless. No right to be alive. What did it matter after all? They both worked.

 

Ibrahim enjoyed his job as a gardener and enjoyed the better life that this good employment gave his family. Nonetheless, he had mentioned the muttering to Djimon because he was deeply bothered by what he saw. He opened his mouth to suggest that just maybe someone of a healing profession should have a look at the woman, because she seemed to look more unhealthy each time someone got a glimpse of her. Just a brief look to make sure all was well?

But before an actual sound could be made, he caught the look in Djimon's eye and knew that the suggestion would be most unwelcome. That knowledge made Ibrahim sad, because he had always considered Djimon an honorable man, and Ibrahim did not like the idea of working for a man he did not respect. But Ibrahim was a sensible man too, and would not do anything rash to hurt his family. Rather, he resolved to find other ways to help the young woman, ways that would put Ibrahim himself on the side of right, but, God willing, not get him fired.

About two weeks after she spoke with Olumiji, Somadina managed to get Azuka's father to take her to Abakaliki, the nearest city, to use the internet café.  She told her father-in-law that she was going to try to search for Nwanyi or any of her in-laws on social networking sites, and that she was going to also gather material which could help her in her fortune-telling. Both were true. She persuaded him to leave well before the sun rose, explaining that in the very early morning she had the best chance of unlimited access and no power outage. That was true also. But the main thing was that what Somadina wanted more than anything was the time and privacy to explore the website x0, and Azuka's father had plenty of other business of his own in town and would not stand over her shoulder curiously like the others. Leaving very early also meant that she could go alone. She felt nervous as she settled onto her stool and carefully typed in http://www.tothepowerofzero.org/.

"Don't be silly. For heaven’s sake, it’s a stupid website. No one here knows or cares what you are doing." Password? Oh yes. She typed exactly as instructed. She began to read.

"Welcome to the homepage of x0. Now please relax. As this is your first time here we invite you to explore and learn more about us. Click here to continue."

The only option was to click the small dark red button in the corner. Okay. Somadina clicked and read on.

Telepathy, also known as "feeling at a distance," is direct brain-to-brain contact. It is a poorly developed human sense somewhat like touch or smell but understood far less well, probably in part because the sense is only possessed by a small percentage of humans.

 

It is most often an emotional feeling received from someone else which is sometimes accompanied by one or more of the following: a mental image, sounds or words heard in one's head including tunes or songs, the memory of a physical sensation such as falling, nausea, or cold, or the memory of a smell, touch, or taste.

 

Somadina thought how wonderful it was to read a description by people who understand exactly what it was she could do.

 

Just over a week after her meeting with Maurice, Lola sat alone with her laptop. She had avoided going to Maurice's website for a lot of reasons, one of which she supposed was discovery by her family. But tonight Ariel was out with friends, and Alex and Teddie had both gone to sleep a good while ago. It was the perfect time.

She turned the small deep red card over and over in her hand. On one side was the enigmatic “x0.” On the other side were Maurice's carefully scrawled handwritten instructions for logging on. She felt oddly nervous. Don't be silly. For heaven’s sake, it’s a stupid website. You can delete it from your browsing history. In fact, you probably should delete it from your browsing history. Like a guilty soul searching for porn, Lola typed in http://www.tothepowerofzero.org/ and waited. Password? She typed exactly as instructed and she began to read.

"Welcome to the homepage of x0. Now please relax. As this is your first time here we invite you to explore and learn more about us. Click here to continue."

The only option was to click the small dark red button in the corner. Okay. Lola clicked and read on. After her conversation with Maurice, she was not so surprised by the description of what telepathy was, but the next part caught her attention.

Telepathy is not mindreading because telepathy generally works at a sub-verbal level. The transmitter can attempt to send words, but it is the feeling behind the words that actually goes. If words are received, they are supplied by the receiving brain attempting to make sense of the emotion and are not necessarily the words being verbalized in the transmitter's head. They may be similar, or there may be significant differences. However, the tone and intent will transmit.

 

Telepathy is also not hallucinatory. Transmitted sounds or images are received "in ones head" in a fashion similar to thoughts, daydreams and dreams, and no normal healthy human would confuse them with real sights or sounds. Physical sensations such as vertigo or heat, if strong enough, may be more confusing.

 

She clicked to go on to the “FAQ's

Q: Who transmits information telepathically?

 

A: We all do. Everyone transmits, although most people merely emit an ongoing low-level signal on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes the more emotionally reticent are particularly poor at transmitting their feelings, and occasionally those with secrets to hide become unconsciously adept at transmitting no or false information. Anyone, even those completely lacking telepathic skill, can transmit more effectively with sufficient motivation. Thus an effective cry for help can be made by those with no particular telepathic skill. Also, adept telepaths generally can and do learn to transmit better when they wish to do so.

 

Lola was particularly eager to read the next answer.

Q: Who receives information telepathically?

 

A: Far fewer people. Being a receiver is the real gift. About one percent of the population has at least a poorly developed ability to receive information telepathically. This ability appears to be evenly distributed by gender, ancestry, ethnicity, location, and socio-economic status with the exception that over the last few decades there has been a noticeable increase in the number of receivers among younger people.

 

Yes, Maurice mentioned something about this.

 

Q: Isn't being a receiver an awful nuisance?

 

A: It can be, but receivers learn and choose, consciously or not, to shut out most of the input that they receive. This filtering ability is more akin to earplugs than to shutting one's eyes in that it does not keep out all input but reduces it. On the other hand, many receivers use their gift to live a fuller life, even if they do not realize that they are doing so. Receivers typically excel in sales, politics, teaching, litigating, or any profession in which feeling the driving emotions of others is an asset. They make great negotiators, can make highly effective healers, and many are described as being the kind of person who could "sell ice to Eskimos."

 

Lola paused. So did this explain all her debate trophies in high school? How about the presentations that almost always went so well?

Q: Can a receiver choose to improve his or her abilities?

 

A: Absolutely, up to a point. Like playing the piano or running a mile, the gift can be practiced and improved to develop it up to a person's maximum potential. However, just as in playing music or running fast, each human will have their own natural limits. A person who has chosen, consciously or not, to develop and use their abilities as a receiver to their fullest is known as an adept receiver. It is estimated that about ten percent of all human receivers have learned to be adept, whether they realize it or not. This is not an insignificant phenomenon, as it currently amounts to almost seven million humans.

 

Lola paused to sip her glass of wine. So she was, probably, an adept receiver?

 

Somadina was confused. What she did and felt seemed to be something well beyond what was being described here. She read on.

Q: Is being a receiver the same as being a telepath?

 

A; No. Only about one in one thousand adept receivers will find that their abilities progress into the range of true telepathy. The delineation between the two categories has no clear boundary, but based on our research we estimate that there are seven thousand or so true telepaths alive today.

 

Okay. That made more sense, Somadina thought. I am a telepath. I have always  been one.

Q: How does a receiver become a telepath?

 

A: Telepaths seem to all be born as receivers, and many of them develop into telepaths spontaneously as children or as teenagers. Less often the ability develops spontaneously in later life, even, surprisingly often, in old age. Just as often, however, receivers are catapulted into being telepaths by a strong experience such as a life-threatening event or danger to a loved one, in which telepathy aids them even though they may not be aware of it at the time. In other cases, the catalyst is close association with someone who already is a strong telepath. Whatever the cause, once the transition to full telepathy is made, there is no going back. And if another telepath has been involved, then the mental bridge that has been built between the two minds appears to be permanent.

 

Lola started to feel a cold chill. So this is where it was going to get weird. She thought of her imaginary friend, the distraught Nigerian older sister, her panic under the water that had turned to calm as she had asked the right questions, which had saved her life. The diffuse yet very real link she seemed to now share with some woman she had never met. She wasn't crazy. This stuff happened. She wasn't crazy. It was okay. She wasn't crazy. This was good. She read on.

                       

Somadina was concerned. Being a telepath seemed like a powerful thing. A scary thing. Was she hurting people without even knowing it? She read the next part with relief.

Q: Doesn't this mean that we have the ability to go around placing ideas in other people's heads?

 

A: No. Remember that the vast majority of people transmit but do not receive. If one tries to place a thought or feeling in the minds of ninety-nine percent of the general population, the recipient will have no idea about it whatsoever. If a thought is placed instead in the mind of a receiver, it will generally result in a vague, fleeting sensation that will likely be ignored.

 

Unless the person doing the placing is damn persistent about it, Lola thought to herself, thinking over the events of past spring. So now what? Was she totally vulnerable to whatever this lady sent her way?

Q: But couldn't someone place ideas in the mind of another telepath?

 

A; Yes. That is one of the many reasons this organization, x0, exists. One of our missions is to locate all people who can fully feel another's emotions, and to inform, teach, and even warn them for their own well-being.

 

Okay. This explained Jumoke's brother's urgency that she meet Maurice. Shit. She wasn't crazy. A minor case of post-traumatic syndrome was the least of her problems. She'd get over that. Maybe had already. No, the real issue here was that Jumoke had been worried about her, had sensed that she was, what, a receiver with issues? He didn't know what those issues were. Hell, he even suspected they might be an abusive husband. But the fact was she was perhaps turning from being a pretty good receiver into a full-fledged telepath, and now she knew that the turning was likely being done by some desperate woman who had no idea what she was doing.

And this group here was trying to educate, warn, and help her. Shit. As if she wasn't weird enough already. But if it was going to happen, why wasn't she, like, turning into one? Picking up more information from people? Did the process take awhile?

Q: Can an unwitting telepath be made to do something they do not wish to do?

 

Now that's a good question, a guilty and worried Somadina thought.

A: Fortunately, no. As far as we know, no telepath has the ability to force another to do something against their will. At most a suggestion can be transmitted, one as simple as "call me so we can talk," which can then be ignored or acted upon as the recipient chooses.

 

That's a comforting answer, Somadina thought.

Q: This still seems like it could be a dangerous skill in the hands of the wrong person. Shouldn't we be worried?

 

Lola winced.

A: It appears that telepathy is a high-level skill when it manifests itself in humans, and to date a certain degree of moral advancement appears to go hand-in-hand with its possession. So far at least there has been no need for policing, as kindness and empathy appear to be a natural outgrowth of being able to feel the emotions of others, and being aware of a potential victim's pain or discomfort is apparently sufficient stimulus to alter any potentially problematic behavior.

 

That is real good to know, thought Lola. Thought Somadina.

Then the back door started to open and Lola jumped in her seat. "Mom," Ariel smiled as she came in. "You okay?"

"Fine dear. You just startled me. I'm headed off to bed myself actually." Lola clicked her browser shut as casually as she could manage and glanced at the clock. It was already way after midnight. "Did you have fun?"

"A bunch of us went to see a movie. It was okay. Kind of a dumb plot. A really long car chase which I thought was pretty pointless, but the guys all seemed to love it." She laughed easily and started to head upstairs. "Get some rest Mom. That stuff on the internet will keep." She winked.

As she turned away Lola thought, Damn. I bet she thinks I was looking at porn.

 

The overhead lights flickered and went dim, and then the whir of the computer ceased. The internet users muttered curses and complaints one by one as the screens went dark, but the clerk in charge just shrugged his shoulders and laughed. The generator had gone out. What could one say? It happened. "Come back later and I'll give you the rest of your time," he offered. "It will probably take awhile to fix it."

Somadina sat on her stool sadly. She had not gotten to finish the FAQs, she had not even started on the list of in-laws names Ikenna had given her to search for, and she had not even had the chance to check her brother Udo's email account like he had told her she could, to look for messages from Olumiji, who had still not gotten back to her via her father's cell phone.

 

Those who only knew the fact that Lola was a scientist might have found her ready acceptance of x0 and its theories contradictory. But to those who understood what kind of scientist she was, it would have made perfect sense, if she had shared it with anyone. Driving across West Texas with her father, Lola had absorbed his love of wide-open spaces, and the related desire to fly. Her dad had gotten his private pilot’s license as a young man, in hopes of ultimately using a small plane instead a car for his business, but had given up the potentially expensive hobby when both the dangers and cost caused his young wife ongoing concern.

Lola, as a young girl, had morphed her dad's dream into that of being an astronaut someday, and meanwhile consoled herself with all the science history and science fiction she could find for young adults. While her friends read romance or mystery, preteen Lola devoured Isaac Asimov, Kate Wilhelm, Ursula Le Guin, and Frederik Pohl. Her idols were Albert Einstein, the failed eighth grader working at a patent office while he speculated about the nature of light, and Marie Curie, a Polish girl in France struggling to understand a behavior which appeared magic but would one day be understood as radioactivity. Lola believed in her heart that the real world remained full of mystery and surprise, and that for all of humanity's continuing proud belief that "most" of the mysteries have been unraveled, she believed that the truth remained far more exciting and complex.

So while Lola shied away from obvious hocus-pocus and scams, she was considerably more open to odd ideas than a casual observer might have guessed. Furthermore, 2009 had brought a series of events she was eager to explain and understand, and x0 had theories. She was all ears.

She was, however, more than ready to stop taking the worthless little blue pills every morning, and she called Dr. Walker for an appointment to discuss a medication exit strategy. He had had a cancellation, so the next day she found herself in his office explaining that she still had had no effect whatsoever from the pills but felt she was now coping fine with whatever minor PTSD she had experienced, and she wanted to stop taking the medication.

"Lola, Lola," Dr. Walker shook his head and smiled. "You don't understand. The very reason you are feeling better is because you are taking the medication. Trust me, I have seen this so often. The patient does not even realize that they are being helped. However, because I do understand that you may be expecting a bit more of an uplift from the medication than what you think you are getting, I do have two alternatives to propose to you. One is that we up the dosage to one hundred milligrams, which is not at all a high or unusual dosage. It is perfectly safe, and I am perfectly happy to do that. But what I think might work better in your particular case is to add instead just a very low dosage of an additional drug proven very effective in combination with what you are taking. Please don't let the words ‘atypical antipsychotic’ scare you."

Lola had a strange flash of panic that Alex or Ariel had checked out her web surfing and somehow had found the x0 website and decided she was delusional and contacted Dr. Walker. Breathe, she told herself sternly. Dr. Walker went on.

 "This has nothing at all to do with your being psychotic," he chuckled. "These drugs have a well-established history of off-label use as a supplement to standard selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Based on your history, I think you will respond well and be grateful for the uplift and elevation of your mood and energy level."

What history, Lola wondered. "Can I think about it?" Now she was confused. She had come in here to get off the things because she thought the pills were a silly waste of time and money, but what if in fact they were now what was helping her function? Great.

"Sure," he said. "Of course. I will call Dr. Hayes and have him write you the prescription and send it to your pharmacy. Go home, discuss it with your husband. Then fill it if you wish. If you decide that you'd rather not be on two medications, then give my office a call and we can talk to Dr. Hayes about upping your dosage instead."

"What if I just want to quit the medication?"

"Abrupt discontinuation is a very bad idea Lola, and I highly discourage you from getting off of medication now when you are just starting to see positive results. You need to work with me and with the medicine, Lola." He smiled. "You are an important part of this process too. Let's be positive and focus on getting you well."

I am well, she thought miserably as she walked out of the door.

 

Somadina came back from the trip to town frustrated and irritable. The road had been hot and dusty, as Azuka's father's car lacked air conditioning. He had been in a hurry to get home and unwilling to take her to a café further away or to wait for the generators to be fixed. She felt like she had wasted a whole day and gotten nothing done. As she approached the house little Kwemto ran to her eagerly from the front door on his chubby legs, and she took comfort in his giggly hug and clean smell. Azuka must have bathed him. That at least was nice.

She looked up to see Azuka smiling down at her. She needed little mind-reading skills to feel the intense joy which he was barely holding in.

"Somadina," he said as solemnly as he could manage. "I need to ask you a question." She winced. She knew this meant good news, very good news, in a medical sense. But it also meant she had a difficult decision to now make and with all else that was going on in her life, she felt frustrated and angry with herself that she had failed to give this one thing, this one very important thing in fact, the time and attention which it warranted.

She now knew that she could care for herself. She did not need a husband. And in fact she could probably get another husband if she wanted, but why would she want that? Azuka was about as good as they came, in her opinion. The question to Somadina really was why would she want a husband at all? Did she love Azuka? Did she simply like him well enough to continue the current arrangement? Until she got Nwanyi back safely, it was going to be terribly hard to know her own mind about much of anything else. She swallowed and tried to frame a patient answer.

But, as he often did, Azuka got there first. "Although I wish to ask you a question," he smiled, "I do not wish for you to answer it today. In fact, I do not wish you to answer it until you are quite ready. Quite sure. Either way. But please, let me ask."

"Very well."

"I am happy to inform you that I am not one of the four percent of Nigerians who carry the HIV virus."

"Azuka, that is truly wonderful news." She meant it.

"Therefore, as a man who may now in good conscience choose to take a wife, and father more children, I hereby ask you, Somadina, to choose me as the man you would wish to marry and for whom you would choose to bear more children."

She started to say something but he put up his hand to silence her.

"Say nothing. Think on it. Do not bring it up at all. Not until you have a one word answer for me." And he smiled and walked away, and she felt his happiness grow as he thought to himself that he had handled the situation perfectly.

 

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